Sunday, July 3, 2011

Gourock-Dunoon ferry

Last week saw the closure of the first ever car ferry service on the west coast of Scotland - that between Gourock and Dunoon operated by Caledonian MacBrayne which opened on 4 January 1954.

MV Saturn approaches Dunoon for the final sailing - Photo credit Stuart MacKillop
First, I have to define "first car ferry service": I'm not including Stranraer to Larne in Northern Ireland which started in 1939 or the many short crossings (half a mile maximum) across lochs and estuaries such as the Erskine Ferry or the Corran Ferry which had been carrying vehicles since the 1920s or earlier. Gourock to Dunoon was the first "sea-going" car ferry within Scotland on the west coast. This is its story. 

As car ownership grew in the 1930s, the London Midland & Scottish Railway Company's shipping subsidiary, the Caledonian Steam Packet Company (CSP), began to draw up plans for car ferries on the prime Clyde routes. These were interrupted by the War but revived when peace returned and a car ferry service from Gourock to Dunoon eventually opened in 1954 with Scotland's first ever car ferry (by the same definition), the MV Arran. There followed two sister ships called Bute and Cowal and, between them, these three "ABC ferries" as they became known, covered the Dunoon service and another between Wemyss Bay and Rothesay which opened later in 1954. 

MV Arran on passage between Gourock & Dunoon in 1958. Photo credit Douglas Campbell
Vehicle traffic on the Dunoon route exceeded expectations but development was hampered somewhat by the method of loading vehicles onto the ships. This was the "hoist loading" system whereby cars had to drive, four or five at a time, onto a platform which was then lowered slowly by pulleys down to the ship's car deck. The same laborious process had to repeated for disembarkation at the other side. It was a huge advance on the previous system of driving over precariously balanced planks onto the deck of a passenger steamer when the tide happened to be at the right level but far from ideal.

Hoist loading cars aboard an ABC ferry in a line drawing scanned from a late 60s CSP brochure
In the late 60s, a private company, Western Ferries Ltd, recognised the limitations in the CSP's service and laid plans for an alternative car ferry service using the more sophisticated ro-ro system we're familar with today whereby vehicles drive down a ramp adjustable to the state of the tide (called a "linkspan") directly on to the ship's car deck. This service eventually began in 1973 between McInroy's Point just west of Gourock and Hunter's Quay just north of Dunoon.

The CSP (which changed its name to Caledonian MacBrayne in 1973 after merging with David MacBrayne Ltd that year) responded with plans to upgrade its Gourock-Dunoon service involving the installation of linkspans at both terminals and the ordering of two new ro-ro ferries, the Jupiter and the Juno which entered service in 1973.

But the CSP/Calmac had missed a trick somewhat in that its new service (which was replicated at Wemyss Bay to Rothesay in 1977 with a third new ship, the Saturn, which, with the 1973 sisters, were known as "the streakers") was not a totally "drive through" one like WF's (i.e. drive on via the ship's stern and off in the same direction via the bow or vice versa). Instead, vehicles would board over the stern of the ferry at Gourock (and Wemyss Bay) but disembark at Dunoon (and Rothesay) over a ramp in the ship's side landing on a linkspan let in at right angles to the pier face. Again, it was great advance on hoist loading but while the 90 degree turn on the car deck was not too much of a hardship for cars, it was no good for artics so, again, was not ideal.

This view aft down the car deck of the Jupiter (1973) by Dave Forbes demonstrates the 90 degree turn needed to disembark at Dunoon
So, despite the improvements to Calmac's Gourock-Dunoon service, it was no surprise that Western Ferries - with a shorter crossing as well as greater operational flexibility - secured a substantial proportion of the vehicular traffic to Cowal in the 1970s.

One of Calmac's "streaker" class ferries, MV Jupiter, on the firth while two WF ferries cross in the background. Photo credit Hugh Spicer
The next act in the story was political rather than operational. A state subsidised public sector competing with private industry may have been the norm under 1970s style socialism but it was anethema to Mrs Thatcher's government which took office in 1979.  The spotlight soon turned on the rival ferry services to Cowal. In its defence, Calmac pointed out that its was the service of choice for foot passengers in that its ferries departed from the doorstep of Gourock station with its links from Glasgow Central in contrast with WF's rather more "out of town" terminals. In fact, Calmac was carrying about two thirds of the foot passengers whereas WF was carrying about two thirds of the vehicles crossing the firth. There was also a strength of feeling in Cowal that, if Calmac's car ferry service were withdrawn, it would leave WF with a monopoly which might lead to increased fares. So a messy political fudge was arrived at in 1982 whereby Calmac would continue to operate car ferries to Dunoon but, in order not to compete too directly with WF, would be restricted to one crossing per hour and would only receive subsididy for the passenger element of the service. With one hand thus tied behind its back, it's hardly a surprise that Calmac's share of the vehicle traffic continued to dwindle ...

A single vehicle on the car deck of a ship designed to take 40 was not an uncommon sight. Photo credit Hugh Spicer
Matters continued like this until 2000 when the Scottish Government woke up to the fact it was obliged under EU law to put the subsidies it was paying Calmac out to competitive tender. Tendering services hitherto performed by "iconic" public sector bodies is always politically thorny and for a while it looked as if a European court case involving subsidised bus services in Germany (the "Altmark" case) might spare the SG the opprobrium but further investigation revealed that this was not so.

The requirement to tender applied to all of Calmac's routes, not just Dunoon. But what set Dunoon apart was that it was the only route in the network which had a private sector competitor. The solution arrived at in 2006 was that all the other routes were offered in one bundle (Calmac won this tender but that's another story) while Dunoon was offered separately on the basis that the successful bidder would have to operate a car and passenger service but with no subsidy. Not surprisingly, nobody bid for this dubious privilege, not even Calmac! The result was that the Scottish Government simply continued to subsidise Calmac to run car ferries to Dunoon as before (except that the service was now run by a company called Cowal Ferries Ltd. However this operated under Calmac branding and management and with their ships, the familiar "streakers", so this was not a change the travelling public noticed.)

Aboard the Jupiter - Picture credit Hugh Spicer
But if the SG thought it had finessed this irritating thorn in its side, it was wrong: Western Ferries cried foul and.the European Commission initiated formal proceedings for payment of illegal "state aid" (subsidy). It eventually ruled in 2009 that subsidising a passenger service from Gourock station to Dunoon town centre was unobjectionable in principle provided it was properly put out to tender. Hence a new tendering process began in which there would be a subsidy for a passenger service with an unrestricted timetable. The successful bidder could carry vehicles if it wanted to and at its own expense but this would not be compulsory as in 2006.

The result of the tender was announced on 25 May 2011 and the winner was Argyll Ferries Ltd. This is in fact another subsidiary of Calmac although to avoid even the perception of any of the mistakes of the failed 2006 tender, this will operate under its own brand. The underbidders were Western Ferries and Clyde Marine Services (the operator of the passenger ferry to Kilcreggan). Not surprisingly, none offered to carry cars.

Argyll Ferries will be offering a much more frequent service over a much longer day than Calmac (Cowal Ferries) did using two vessels. One is a ferry called Banrion Chonamara acquired from Ireland where she had been serving the Aran Islands. Seen in profile on the extract from AF's website above, she has been renamed Argyll Flyer for the new Dunoon service. The other is a vessel which Calmac had had on charter for a number of years to give peak time sailings to Dunoon to supplement the sailings by the "streaker" car ferries: she is called Ali Cat and has now been purchased outright by AF.

Ali Cat at Gourock - a bit of a rubber duck, lookswise IMO! - Photo credit Stuart MacKillop
And what of the 35 year old "streaker" car ferries? One of them was rendered redundant in 2007 upon completion of deployment on the Rothesay route of the third generation of Upper Clyde car ferries, the Argyle and Bute (II). So the Juno was laid up at Rosneath on the Gareloch to act as a source of spare parts for the two survivors, the Jupiter and Saturn. Their roles were now confined to Gourock to Dunoon and summer second ship on the Ardrossan-Brodick (Arran) run. When the Saturn ceased in the latter role at the end of the 2010 summer season, she took up the Dunoon run and the Jupiter was sent to Rosneath as well. As soon as it became clear that the future of the Dunoon run was likely to be passenger only, the Juno was sold for scrapping in situ at Rosneath. As I type this, there's little left of her. Within days of the formal announcement that Gourock-Dunoon was to go passenger only, the Jupiter was also sold for scrapping and was towed away to ship-breakers in Denmark on 25 June. Having been designed exclusively for the relatively sheltered waters of the Upper Clyde, there is no market for such old ships elsewhere (as there has been for other ex-Calmac ships of similar vintage, e.g. Iona (1970) and Pioneer (1974) in West Africa). This just left the Saturn to perform the final car ferry sailing from Dunoon to Gourock at 20.45 on Wednesday 29 June 2011. The Saturn then sailed to Ardrossan to take up a programme of extra summer sailings to Brodick. In the autumn, she will probably repair to "hot layup" at Rosneath and be retained in the medium term on standby to cover breakdowns on the Rothesay or Brodick routes.

MV Saturn sails away from Dunoon for the last time - Photo credit John Newth
Argyll Ferries did not get off to a brilliant start on Thursday 30 June, it has to be admitted: the Argyll Flyer is still not ready to enter service (she was still at Ardmaliesh Boatyard on Bute undergoing conversion) and her place had to be taken by a vessel called Clyde Clipper chartered from Clyde Marine Services at short notice. Time keeping on the first few days has been poor leading to trains for Glasgow departing Gourock before the connecting ferry had arrived - there's a suggestion the late running is due to the boarding gangways being too narrow for the passengers to be able to board quickly enough. It's a problem which has bedevilled many a previous Clyde steamer service! 

All grist to the mill of the nay-sayers - those who believe Western Ferries have been handed a monopoly. Well you didn't "vote with your wheels" and patronise Calmac so a classic case of you didn't use it so you lost it! No doubt the teething troubles of Argyll Ferries' new service will be ironed out shortly. It should be viewed as Calmac having gone back to its roots. The Caledonian Railway Company incorporated the CSP as a separate company in 1889 to circumvent legal diffulculties over, in effect, extending the rail network across the Firth of Clyde with ships. The same thing has been done in 2011 with the incorporation of Argyll Ferries.

MV Arran - first ever Scottish car ferry between Gorock and Dunoon


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  2. It's sad reading this as I spent most of my early teenage holidays watching the Saturn, Jupiter and Juno ply their trade in the Firth of Clyde. I returned in later years on day charter rail/boat trips to relive this experience to Dunoon & Rothesay. I realise that they were becoming relics and even though P.S.Waverley is expensive to run, it's difficult to believe that there is not even a preservation group interested in saving one of these boats.

  3. Whether on purpose or not regarding the alternative choice of passenger-only ferries for the Calmac subsiduary company , Argyll Ferries Ltd after the 29th June 2011. The perfect examples has been the recent gales , some unseasonable , that the two 'boats' carrying out the towncentre to town centre service are wholly ineffective because they cannot run the service due to waves over 3 or 4 feet in height. I have an app for the Argyll Service and it has been either amber or red for weeks now. The Gourock-Dunoon Calmac service , as that is what it really is , needs bigger vessels if it is to remain a success.

  4. The Seabus that runs between Gourock, Helensburgh and Kilcreggan is the same; it has been weatherbound dozens of times in the winters it has been in service. It has a very large superstructure relative to its displacement, which means it's difficult to handle in high winds and it's almost as bad a seaboat as CMS's Rover; the Rover used to bob about like a washing boyne even in a flatcalm. The old Kenilworth might have been lacking in modernity, directional stability(it never went in a straight line, it yawed continuously; I know as old John once gave me a go at steering it) and comfort, but she was rarely stopped by the weather, the limit tended to be whether it was safe or possible to put out the gangway.

    The recent article in the Helensburgh Advertiser saying the new service provider is going to supply an even smaller ferry to do the run does not fill me with confidence.